Among the leaders of federal regulatory agencies, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has a unique job requirement: He has to be funny - at least for one night.
New FCC chair Tom Wheeler gamely rose to the occasion at the Federal Communications Bar Association's annual Chairman's Dinner last night at the Washington Hilton, delivering a self-deprecating speech that kept the crowd laughing.
More than 1,600 lawyers, lobbyists and professionals gathered for the so-called telecom prom - a four-course dinner followed by remarks from the chairman, a former venture capitalist and lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries who was sworn in as the head of the FCC on Nov. 4.
Wheeler gently poked fun at his age (he is 67) and the fact he’s not a lawyer. He suggested that rather than citing cases (e.g. FCC v. Pacifica), attorneys meeting with him should cite football games (e.g. Ohio State v. Michigan)—but only those where Ohio State won.
He also offered tips for how to lobby him. “Understand the priorities of the new chair,” he said. “For example, if he’s a grandfather, don’t wait to ask him to pull out the pictures of the grandchildren.” Wheeler then displayed a photo of his toddler grandson Melvin on the giant projection screen behind him. “I’m not saying oohing and aahing over the grandkids will get you the spectrum allocation you want,” he said. “But it won’t hurt.”
Another tip: “Appeal to the chairman’s intellectual interests. It’s a funny line just all by itself,” he said. “For instance, poking holes in an opponent’s logic is OK. But saying it is as dumb as General McClellen’s refusal to pursue Lee after Antietam is inspired. And what’s more, it gives the chairman an opportunity to talk about the Civil War instead of what you want to talk about.”
Some of the biggest laughs came when he touted his book, “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War.” Would it be shameless sucking up for those seeking to lobby him to quote from it? No, it would not, he said.
However, showing up with a case of books for him to autograph would be going too far. At the same time, the projection screen flashed a photo of Wilkinson Barker Knauer managing partner Bryan Tramont (chief of staff at the FCC under Chairman Michael Powell) holding up a copy of the book in supplication.
He also made a thinly veiled reference to the upcoming spectrum auction, where dominant carriers AT&T and Verizon may be limited in what they can buy in order to provide an opening to smaller rivals.
“There’s a good supply of good wine here tonight, but it’s a limited supply, so AT&T and Verizon, we’re going to have to ask you to limit” it, he said. “T-Mobile and Sprint—go ahead guys...but would you show up and buy something? But of course, we want to thank the broadcasters for sharing.”
Wheeler was introduced by FCBA President Joseph Di Scipio, vice president, legal and FCC compliance at Fox Television Stations Inc., who announced that the bar association raised a record $140,000 from its charity auction in November. The bulk of the money goes to Horizons Greater Washington, which provides year-round academic enrichment to low-income children.